You can be tough on terrorism without torture
The outlook for Gina Haspel’s nomination to run the CIA is not good. As The Washington Post revealed, White House aides had to talk Haspel out of withdrawing her nomination on Friday. On Monday, CNN reported a back-up nominee is in place in case Haspel isn’t confirmed: Susan Gordon, the deputy director of national intelligence.
If accurate, this removes the strongest argument for Haspel, and the reason her CIA colleagues have been inappropriately lobbying for her nomination: the fear that it is either her, or an unqualified ideologue such as Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, who would politicise intelligence.
If the alternative to Haspel is another intelligence professional who is not marred by involvement in torture and the destruction of evidence, it is difficult to see why wavering senators would want to stick their necks out to vote for her. Especially when doing so risks lending legitimacy to repugnant interrogation techniques.
It is clear Donald Trump sees the reopening of the torture debate as not an excruciating foray into morally fraught terrain, but an opportunity to simple-mindedly bash Democrats as terrorist sympathisers.
Faux tough-guy Trump tweeted on Monday: “My highly respected nominee for CIA director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want out because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”
Sorry, Mr President, but you can be tough on terror and still oppose torture. That, in fact, is precisely the position of your own defence secretary, Jim Mattis, who said during his job interview, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I do better with that than I do with torture.”
Trump reluctantly acceded to Mattis’s view by banning torture while insisting that it “works”.
In a very narrow sense, Trump is right: torture does elicit information. Mattis is also right: empathetic interrogation also elicits information.
Even if torture can produce more information more quickly, it does not mean it’s worth doing. The use of torture always becomes public and causes blowback that, in a liberal democracy, typically outweighs the benefits of any information that might have been derived via waterboarding, “stress positions”, sleep deprivation or other fiendish techniques.
It is something I failed to appreciate in the past when I was more sympathetic to “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a tool in the war on terror.
France discovered how counterproductive torture was during its war in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. It was common for French forces to hook up detainees to a dynamo called the gégène that administered an excruciating electrical shock.
The information thus obtained helped French soldiers to administer tactical defeats to Algerian independence fighters, but ultimately cost them the public support they needed to win the war.
The United States had a similar experience after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the Bush Administration, in an understandable panic, resorted to the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at black sites — including one run by Haspel in Thailand.
A Jesuitical debate still rages over whether these techniques produced useful information that disrupted terrorist attacks or helped lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee produced a lengthy report that claimed abusive interrogations did not produce any intelligence that was not available elsewhere.
This was strongly rebutted by the CIA, with former deputy director Michael Morrell arguing it would have taken a long time to elicit the same information from other sources, and that the enhanced interrogations pointed the agency towards leads that might otherwise have been lost in a lot of white noise.
The CIA position is more persuasive, but that doesn’t mean we should torture in the future. The blowback from the CIA programme, and the unauthorised abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, sullied America’s reputation and gave a propaganda boost to our enemies.
More than that: CIA involvement in such unsavoury acts morally compromised its officers, including Haspel, and harmed the agency. That is something then FBI director Robert Mueller understood when he ordered FBI agents to steer clear of coercive interrogations.
Since those dark days, we have developed something close to a national consensus that we shouldn’t engage in torture. The CIA, FBI, and Department of Defence formed a high-value detainee interrogation group in 2009 to employ “authorised, lawful, non-coercive techniques that are designed to elicit voluntary statements and do not involve the use of force, threats, or promises”.
While rejecting torture, our political leaders, on a bipartisan basis, also rightly rejected attempts to prosecute intelligence officers who carried out what they believed were lawful orders. But there is a difference between avoiding prosecution and being promoted to CIA director. It’s a close call, and though she is eminently qualified, I would vote against Haspel’s nomination if I were in the Senate. And I would fight like hell Trump’s loathsome attempts to profit politically from his advocacy of torture.
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. A bestselling historian, he is the author most recently of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
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